Questions lead to research which leads to action
It’s no surprise to your average observer that turkey hunting has changed over the last couple of decades, and for many it has not been a positive development. In the past you had your choice of gobblers to pursue, but now there are fewer options. Perhaps more alarming, is the news that a growing number of states are changing or closing seasons, resulting in turkey hunters losing opportunities to go on highly anticipated hunts.
However, most turkey vital rates, including adult survival rates and harvest rates, have been largely stable over last few decades. The biggest exception to that statement would be poult production. Poult production has been in decline in Missouri since the mid- to late-1980s and hit an all-time low in 2016 and 2017. This set off alarm bells and a new research project was initiated in 2020 to identify the root causes of this decline. The project aims to determine how mesocarnivore abundance and distribution, insect abundance and diversity, weather, and habitat characteristics on the local and regional level impact nest and poult survival. This is the first large-scale project looking at all these factors at the same time and the results will give us insight into what is driving production declines.
So far, with generous funding from, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation (MCHF) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), researchers have been able to capture and tag 112 hens and 38 poults. The GPS packs the hens wear allow researchers to monitor the hen’s location every 10 minutes during the brooding season and can even record her activity by analyzing her movement. This location information, combined with estimated mesocarnivore densities, will allow researchers to determine areas where conflict between hens and predators are most likely to occur and ways to change the landscape to give hens an advantage. Live trapping and tagging of raccoons, opossums and skunks are conducted from late March through early May, while game cameras targeting coyote, bobcat and fox are placed from late March into August. Early results from the live trapping have shown raccoon densities ranging from 0.09 and 0.5 raccoons per acre and opossum densities ranged from 0.03 to 0.27 opossums per acre. These numbers are associated with each trapping area, and overall estimates will be released later.
Average hen survival, a key demographic rate, varied from 83% in 2021 to 65% in 2022. This variation is an interesting result that is being monitored closely by the researchers. Of the reported mortalities, less than 1% of those have been associated with hunter harvest. Of the 38 poults tagged so far, 10 (26%) survived until they were 28-days old, 13 (34%) were lost to predators and the remaining (40%) had unknown fates. Identifying the species of predator from remains is challenging most cases; however, it is likely that some mortalities can be attributed to avian species in addition to mammalian species.
Nesting success was also varied from 2021 to 2022. In 2021 more hens nested in open fields, while in 2022 hens appeared to choose fields over forest indiscriminately. 2022 nest success was down 4.5% from 2021, where only 20% of all nests were successful. The 2023 and 2024 nesting season should shine more light on success rates and nesting habitat preferences. The results of the game camera surveys, insect, vegetation, and weather station surveys are still being processed, but will likely provide key additional insights as to why production has declined.
What this study will ultimately tell us is what factors lead to success and how we can manipulate the landscape to give turkeys the advantage. This will undoubtedly be through the creation or enhancement of nesting and brood rearing habitat. To better leverage the findings of this project and to spread the word on how to create more turkey habitat, MDC kicked off the Turkey Habitat Initiative (THI), headed up by the new THI Coordinator Meagan Duffee-Yeats, in the spring of 2023.
The main goals of the THI are to collect information from our own research and research done across the country to identify characteristics of quality nesting and brood rearing habitat, create a habitat evaluation guide so that landowners and managers (both public and private) can assess their properties to determine the amount and quality of habitat that they have, and to develop a step-by-step guide for creating or improving habitat. The THI will also feature a communication and outreach plan that will enable MDC to pass along important findings and the management approaches that will promote the creation of more nesting and brood rearing habitat. While there is still work to be done on public land, the success of the THI and the future of the wild turkey, ultimately, lie in the hands of the private landowners whose holdings account for 93% of the land in Missouri.